Silent citizens, screaming bodies: what Femen, the CIA and the Boston bombings may have in common
1. Femen, the feminist group from the Ukraine, have been able to draw widespread attention to their protests only after stopping to argue about sexual exploitation and instead showing what a sensation-oriented public wanted to see: naked female bodies. While I was still wondering and trying to figure out whether theirs was an extremely clever and subersive strategy to expose the hypocrisies of the Western male, their activism quickly devolved into parading naked bodies as such, claiming their “right” to be naked everywhere, anytime. What seems to have gotten lost in the process of gaining attention are the original political demands. In what can be deemed a classical case of phatic communication (Slavoj Zizek), the body itself has become the message.
2. Northern Caucasians initially expressed shock and disbelief that ‘someone from them’ could commit such an outrageous act. As more details come to light, these feelings seem to give way to annoyance and frustration. Anger and fear at the criminal acts of two individuals which may now lead to the stigmatization of Northern Caucasian communities as a whole, fear that this might undo all the patient work of Northern Caucasian grassroots initiatives. What I for my part feel by looking at Western media is extreme irritation at the fact that a bomb has achieved now what democratic, peaceful and transparent work has not: to get the simmering Russo-Caucasian conflict and enduring Russian human rights abuses into the media and back onto our agendas.
While dedicated scientific research and painstaking civil action are not being listened to and are indeed being silenced and undermined, what seems to have caught the public’s eye now is an explosion – a blast leaving behind three dead American bodies, many more wounded ones and a huge amount of questions. Suddenly people are trying to find Chechnya and Daghestan on the map, they are asking questions about the wars in the Caucasus, learning about deportations, massacres, disappearances and Russian campaigns of extermination. Then again, there is the initial excitement over what could possibly have been the matter with a young Chechen student, a boy losing his home even before he was born.
3. Once taking for granted that no one enters this world as a terrorist, and also assuming there was no set-up, there must have been a point in Dzhokhar’s life where he strayed from the right path, some moment at which he was seduced by a vision of the power he would hold over other people’s lives. It seems to me that this course has been set less than two years ago. At seventeen, Dzhokhar contacted a professor of Islamic Studies as he had felt an urge to learn about his Chechen origins. With Dzhokhar being an eager, bright and achieving student, this could as well have been the beginning of a promising academic career. How did, what began as scholarly interest, end up with a violent blast, ruining both the lives of random victims and his own?
Brian Glyn Williams**, the university professor Dzhokhar contacted upon recommendation of his school teacher, is not your ordinary scholar, and he is certainly not the bewildered civilian as whom he comes across recent statements to journalists. Mr. Williams is a specialist on Jihad and has offered his expertise to organizations like the CIA and Scotland Yard. Prof. Williams is involved in Guantanamo as he is involved in Agfhanistan, he conducts “fieldwork” in Kosovo, the Caucasus and the Middle East. In short, all the hotspots of American foreing policy interests and military intervention are within his range of action. What kind of model, I ask, could a professor with such a background have possibly been for a boy looking not only for a sense of belonging but also for ways of expressing himself – personally, politically? One of the questions that has to be asked in my opinion is which kind of civilian perspective – be it political activism or academic scholarship – could and should have been pointed out to Dzhokhar by his mentors.
4. Unfortunately, an academician doubling up as intelligence and/or foreign policy agent is, in the field of Northern Caucasus Studies, less of an exception than one might think. Mr. Williams’ “other” job is but the symptom of a much deeper problem. The whole of Northern Caucasian Studies is interwoven with Russian “domestic” and European, Turkish and American foreign policy interests up to a degree where it is virtually impossible to speak of the existence of an autonomous scholarly field. Prof. Williams is probably not even aware of how strange indeed it sounds that he, a CIA-official, should be the only one in the whole US to give academic courses on the “Chechen Wars”.
Much of the non-academic interferences into the field are advanced in covered ways, which make it difficult for civilian scientists and ordinary citizens alike to trace and criticize these interventions, and easy for the institutions and interest groups concerned to control, manipulate and instrumentalize academic research. For academicians like me who are working on Northern Caucasian issues, it is all too common to be attending conferences and meetings together with officials of the CIA, FSB or MIT. Sometimes we are aware of it, sometimes we aren’t.
I know of a Western scholar who left off scientific collaboration with Northern Caucasian colleagues after dicovering that each and every meeting was attended by undercover FSB agents as well. I myself as an eager but politically rather inexperienced young scholar once rushed to contribute to a conference on “Human Rights” in Western Caucasus, only to find myself listening to Glen Howard, head of the Jamestown Foundation. Mr. Howard was recounting an episode of a visit in Chechnya, a visit that had taken place at a time when the land was closed to foreign visitors, nevertheless he self-confidently showed his photos taken together with “my friend, the Sufi Sheikh” – a bearded man with a heavy machine gun in his lap and a martial look on his face. Mr. Howard had been offering him “political consulting”.
To the contrary of the image transmitted at home, the CIA and related US foreign policy institutions conduct not a policy of eliminating terrorism, but of alternately supporting and combating “Islamic” fundamentalists. The genuine paradoxon of the Boston bombings is thus, it seems to me, less that Dzhokhar planted a bomb in his home town of Boston instead of aiming at the Russian side. The real irony consists in that, had Dzhokhar indeed joined al Qaeda or a local Northern Caucasian militant group, he might not be lying in a hospital in Boston right now, wounded and being interrogated by FBI, facing death penalty, but might instead be sitting safe and sound somehwere else, having a comfortable chat with Mr. Williams on one of the latter’s missions.
But let’s return to the academic side of the issue for a moment: of course no one is forced to offer his or her services to the CIA or any other government organization. However, in this particularly tiny, frail and instable academic field of Northern Caucasus Studies, what you are offered is often not a choice between militarian and civilian employment, between intellectual prostitution and honest, balanced and sober work, between much money and lesser money, large amounts of public prestige or a withdrawn scholarly existence, but one between having an academic career and having no career at all, between being published and listened to and being silenced and forgotten. Academic dissidence is neither much encouraged nor readily tolerated. You may even be sneered at for taking up balanced, mediating stances, as I was sneered at by a senior German colleague for the mere fact of mentioning that I was working on the Russian conquest of Northern Caucasus and Russian colonial violence. Accusing me of holding sympathies with terrorist bombing attackers, this person never spoke to me again. Once you resist efforts at instrumentalization, you might quickly find yourself isolated by the academic community and all on your own.
5. But what about citizens’ initiates and grassroot-organizations, what about people actually doing things on their own instead of letting themselves be instrumentalized for other people’s interests? Yes, of course this approach does exist and Northern Caucasian diaspora members are devoting a great deal of their energy, time and resources to this kind of work. However, there seems to be little interest and recognition for this from the outside. Indeed, personal commitment and insistence on moral integrity are again much more likely to incite reprimands, discrimination, and retributive behavior than recognition, approval or even support.
Ever more sadly, this is not all there is to say about the negative sides of taking action upon your own without being backed up by “big” society. Intellectuals and activists touching upon Northern Caucasian topics have faced and are facing numerous threats, both covered and open. Why, you might ask at this point, have I never heard of this before? I have to ask the same question too: why, the hell, are our media so reluctant to cover this? The only well-known case in the West seems to be that of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead for her commitment to peace and justice. Other cases of harrassment and threats go largely unnoticed and uncounted. Political pressure, vindicative behavior in the face for uncomfortable truths, intimidations and threats to scholars and activists are not even limited to the Russian side, although more freqent there. In the Caucasus itself, we have arrived at a situation where people have even become afraid of contributing to ethnographic museum work, because of the “political implications” a display of Northern Caucasian history and culture might have.
Once it happens to you, you may quickly discover that a great deal of what you thought of as “civil society” and Human Rights organizations will let you down. These, again, turn out to be proxies of various governments’ foreign policy interests.As far as I know, threatened individuals have – for lack of a safe platform – in several cases been too scared to have their names mentioned, and are therefore merely trying to go on with their lives as if nothing had happened.
6. There is, in short, no safe civil space reserved for academic scholarship and/or peaceful activism in Northern Caucasian issues, and no fourth estate to act as corrective. The civilian room in which to discuss Northern Caucasian issues – it is not there, it must still be created. In the meanwhile organizations like the Jamestown Foundation are busily undermining civilian efforts, sewing distrust and strife wherever they go. Working in such a volatile field is an exhausting, frustrating and life-consuming struggle, one that is less chosen than forced upon you by life’s circumstances. It is at least something that I would never want to recommend to a young, bright and eager college student like Dzhokhar was one to actively look for. However, it seems that precisely this kind of gruelsome struggle would have been Dzhokhar’s only morally legitimate choice – that or a withdrawal into silent passivity.
Those who are so quick now to condemn Dzhokhar past and present should first ask themselves whether they have truly understood the weight resting upon individuals choosing civilian roads. Mr. Willimans is calling the Dzokhar of 2 years ago a “psychopath“ and claims to freak out at the thought of having communicated with him – a rather odd thing to do for someone whose profession demands regular contact with freaky individuals from both sides, isn’t it? Once we leave the slippery terrain of highly charged moral judgements toward the question of pragmatic measures, things get surprisingly easy: if you want to make sure that young people do not choose the “easy” path and take resort to violence, why demand more from them than you might want to carry yourself. Offer them chances for expressing themselves and for being listened to, offer them viable perspectives, a positive image of themselves by encouragement and reasonable rewards and see how they will seize upon that. Who wants to become hunted and judged as war criminal when he or she can have a happy, secure and fulfilled life?
In a situation where official gratifications are lacking, who, which teacher, professor, mentor, would have been in a moral or intellectual position to point to Dzhokhar that quiet, patient struggle has its own merits too – quite apart from and even opposed to official recognition and social or financial incentives? Mr. Williams has made his choices in life too. He openly tells that after 9/11 he was one of those accepting the new kind of “job offers” coming in, because “it’s sexier to work on those kind of topics, drones, terrorism”, that is, much more exciting in comparison to the painstaking, slow and tiring work with archival documents. Both his teachings and writings make him appear much more like a militarist than a humanist. The professor of Islamic History thinks that although Islam is “not the sole explanation”, “Islam is a subtext for much of the violence and terrorism” taking place. What Williams explains to his students is that there are two alternative responses of “Muslims” (the Muslim?) to US-attacks: a) revenge or b) giving up upon Jihad in the face of superior might. The enemy is not made and unmade, the enemy has to be discouraged and wiped out. Loyalty and appartenance to one’s own group in its turn is demonstrated by taking bodies from the “other” side: in Mr. Williams’ depiction, Barack Obama himself has, by actively supporting the liquidation of Osama bin Laden, proven to the American public that he is not a secretive Muslim in the most clever of ways.
Mr. Williams is now asking aloud the question of whether he might have contributed to Dzhokhar’s radicalization by passing him information on Chechen history. Did I get him right that for him precisely these Chechen origins posed a hidden threat which would better have been left sleeping? Even if Mr. Williams himself has now sought to somewhat efface this impression, the belief that Dzhokhar should have been inculcated with American culture and kept away from his roots seems a widespread one. How, I ask myself, would it have been if Dzhokhar had hit upon a professor from “those who like equivocations in their academic discourse” in contrast to Williams’ preference for “blunt but revealing” opinions? Could Dzhokhar not have been offered a positive way for connecting to his roots, by teaching him anti-essentialism, peaceful conflict solution and intellectual criticism, instead of setting his mind upon a war described in religious terms?
Dzhokhar, if indeed proven guilty, has slipped. The scenario of a democratic and peaceful West against an aggressive, Islamic East should have been analyzed, commented upon and criticized, and not acted out. The bombings’ “message” again consists in bodies, bodies as replacement for other, faraway bodies, thus bringing visions of violence home.
Is what Dzhokhar seems to have finally done truly the result of embracing “Islamic fundamentalism”, or is it the tragic, violent foundering of civilian alternatives? At least it seems that the reason that Dzhokhar and his brother targeted Boston civilians was that these were simply all that was within their reach: a gesture both powerful in its physical prowess and helpless in its absence of “meaning”. While the brothers were preparing their dirty, home-made bombs, Mr. Williams has been juggling with numbers in order to prove that American drones thousands of miles away strike precisely, that America’s war on terror is “clean”. The lack of political visions and voices is, it appears, a very general one.
7. Femen, for their part, have just announced to expand their “topless Jihad” and “hound Islamic leaders across the globe”.When, I ask myself, will we stop parading our naked and dead bodies in front of each other, when will we refrain from reckoning up each other’s corpses? Zygmunt Baumann has called this the end of politics. We have to start talking and listening to each other again.
Please note that all views as expressed here are my own, personal ones.
**I owe the insight into Prof. Williams professional background to Nartan Mefewud and his well-researched article series:
Nartan Mefewud: ”ABD’nin Çerkes aşkı” (The Love of the USA for the Circassians), Circassian monthly newspaper “Jineps”: part 1, Jineps No. 46, December 2012; part 2, Jineps No. 47, January 2013; part 3, Jineps No. 48, February 2013; part 4, Jineps No. 49, March 2013 (Prof. Williams is discussed in part 2).
I furthermore thank Nartan Mefewud for his personal communications and for generously sharing his collection of sources on Prof. Williams’ background with me:
– Personal website of Brian Glyn Williams: http://brianglynwilliams.com/
– Brian Glyn Williams’ articles on the website of Jamestown Foundation: http://www.jamestown.org/articles-by-author/?no_cache=1&tx_cablanttnewsstaffrelation_pi1%5Bauthor%5D=142
– Matthew Fricker/ Avery Plaw/ Brian Glyn Williams: New light on the accuracy of the CIA’s Predator drone campaign in Pakistan, Terrorism Monitor Vol. VIII, Issue 41, November 11, 2010, pp. 8-13, at http://www.jamestown.org/uploads/media/TM_008_500185.pdf
– Jack Spillane: Umass professor tells it like it is about who got bin Laden and who didn’t, SouthCoast Today, May 3, 2011, at http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110503/NEWS/105030326
– Interview: Brian Glyn Williams. By Andrew Gaboury, March 13, 2013 (on his research and teaching philosophy and his collaboration with CIA and Scotland Yard), at http://www.majorhistory.com/interview-brian-glyn-williams.php
– Zachary Taylor Conolly. Student spotlights, at http://mobile.umassd.edu/web/students/spotlight/currentstudents/zconnolly/#_web_595a8aa91e96f593d4666266be1300e1
– Access to KSM denied for Hamdan Military Commission hearing, but defense allowed to call some witnesses, December 5 2007 (on Mr. Williams’ involvement in Guantanamo), at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/2007/12/05/access-to-ksm-denied-for-hamdan-military-commission-hearing-but-defense-allowed-to-call-some-witnesses/
Prof. Williams on the Boston bombings:
– Judson Berger: Prof says Bostom bombing suspect sought help ‘rediscovering’ Chechen roots. Fox News, April 19, 2013, at http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/04/19/prof-says-boston-bombing-suspect-sought-help-rediscovering-chechen-roots/
– Steve Urbon: UMass Dartmouth professor: I hope I did’t contribute, SouthCoast Today, April 19, 2013, at http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130419/NEWS/130419860
– Joyce Hackel: Professor of Chechen history ponders brief contact with Boston bombing suspect, The World, April 22, 2013, at http://www.theworld.org/2013/04/professor-of-chechen-history/
– Thomas Lifson: What did Dzhokhar learn about Chechnya at School? American Thinker, April 21, 2013 http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2013/04/what_did_dzhokhar_learn_about_chechnya_in_school.html